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  • Peggy Simonsen

A May Visit to English Gardens

Updated: May 31, 2021

As I wrote about in Wandering the World, it was special to visit English gardens with my horticulture and landscape instructor from the Morton Arboretum, Karla Lynch. She had studied landscape design in England and knew many of the head gardeners of the famous estates with expansive gardens as well as private gardens we were invited to visit. We spent eight days exploring southern England with guided tours by head gardeners. One such estate is Stourhead, a 2,650-acre estate in Wiltshire. The gardens provide full time jobs for a team of maintenance workers. Head gardeners have horticulture or similar degrees and life-long experience. They design the gardens, sometimes to replicate the original planting in centuries-old estates, grow and cultivate the plants, and manage an equally skilled team. These aren’t the mow and blow crews that take care of lawns in US suburbia, but passionate, knowledgeable professionals often spending their whole career employed by one estate.


One style of gardens I am not crazy about are the “outdoor rooms” created by hedges (often yews or boxwood) pruned to have flat “walls”. It does make a large area interesting, as you move from room to room through a “doorway”, with different types of plants in each. A sunny room might be full of flowering perennials, while a shady room might have many species of ferns. As a gardener of native plants and natural areas, the artificiality and formality of pruning shrubs into unnatural shapes is annoying to see. I react the same way in the US to see shrubs pruned into bowling balls or boxes.


On the other hand, some of the formal gardens were spectacular, with fountains, rock waterfalls, and allées (French word for walkways with tree branches arching over to form a “tunnel”). Some of the most impressive were private homes with beautiful gardens, on a scale more relatable than the huge estates, but still amazing. We were shown around by the gardener, then invited to tea by the owner. This was a perk not available to the public, but arranged by our leader who knew the owners or gardeners.


We were in London for the Chelsea Garden Show which is enormous. It fills a huge arena and spills over outside with booths selling every kind of garden tool and decoration, plants and seeds. I was particularly amazed at the exhibit of American native plants, sponsored by the Garden Club of America. I knew all the woodland natives of course, but these were giant plants and massive displays, obviously cultivated and fertilized to grow way beyond their size in nature. Some of the exhibits are of only one type of plant, such as many species of roses or azaleas.


It is always more rewarding to experience places with local contacts and the opportunity to meet and interact with residents of the places I visit. Sometimes that is a local guide, but this garden trip had both a leader and others in the small group with the same passion as well as expert guides at the sites. Memorable!


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